Time to reflect on the really true meaning of Passover celebration

Penny Faust, of the Oxford Jewish Congregation

Penny Faust, of the Oxford Jewish Congregation

First published in News

UNLEAVENED bread called matzo, specially prepared foodstuffs, and a particular way of cooking feature in the celebration of Passover, an eight-day festival which is just coming to its end.

And as for the days of preparation beforehand cleaning your home from top to bottom, I am sure it is the origin of spring cleaning, the annual clear-out to ensure that nothing remains of any food prepared with yeast, so your home is ready for Passover.

Why? Because Passover is the time when Jews remember the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.

The story tells us that the Israelites had originally gone to Egypt to escape famine and, after several centuries, had ended up as slaves used for hard labour.

A man called Moses, called by God, negotiated with the Pharoah of the time to allow the Jews to leave and when he was refused, a series of plagues occurred culminating in the death of first born sons.

The Israelites had avoided this plague as, on God’s instruction given to Moses, they had marked their doorposts with the blood of a lamb. We are told that the Angel of Death passed over the houses of the Israelites.

After that, the Pharoah let the people go. So they hurriedly packed up their households and left. The story says that they did not have time to let their bread rise, so they put their unleavened dough on their backs and it was baked by the sun.

It is this liberation of the Jews from slavery, seen as a fulfilment of the original covenant God had made with Abraham, that is remembered at Passover.

For Jews, the first commandment is not ‘You shall have no other Gods before me’. That comes second.

The first is ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage’ – the act of redemption that reinforces the Jewish commitment to worship the one God.

The Passover meal or Seder (the word literally means ‘order’, the order of service) is held at the beginning of the festival.

The service is contained in a special book called the Haggadah and begins with a series of four questions from the youngest children.

The rest of the evening consists of telling the story of the Exodus with illustrations for the children, philosophical commentaries from the rabbis and, as well as the main meal, glasses of wine and lots of special foods: horseradish to indicate the bitterness of slavery, vegetable dipped in salt to remind us of the tears of the slaves, a sweet mixture of apples, raisins and nuts moistened with wine to represent the mortar of the buildings that the Israelites built.

And for eight days we don’t eat anything with yeast in it.

So it’s matzo, not bread, and a rich variety of cakes and biscuits that are baked without any raising agent. Cooking is done in a totally different way!

In the same way that people come together for Christmas, Jews come together for Passover.

My four children all had gap years working and travelling in various parts of the world.

At Passover they were invited by local families to join them for the celebration. In Oxford, too, the Jewish community ensures that visitors can celebrate Passover, placing them with our members or attending the communal Seder held at the Jewish Centre.

Passover is a seminal festival for Jews: the rabbis say that we must hear the story of the Exodus not as if it had happened to them, but as if it happened to us.

For without the Exodus, we would not be here.

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